Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | August 14, 2014

The Black Hole of Depression

So much to say – a beloved actor and caring, benevolent man has passed at his own hands, falling prey to the tunnels of darkness. So much has been written already about him, and about the horrors of depression. Calls to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and increase treatment are being championed all around the media and blogosphere. But will we rise?

I have been thinking these last few days of all the people, both personally and professionally, I have known who have struggled with such illnesses. I have been flooded with many memories of conversations I have had over the years, mostly with clients, on what it is like to have a debilitating brain disease such as depression. I shudder at some of the response I gave during my early years of practice. So much I did not know, so much I did not understand.
I think about some of the times I have asked my clients about their illness and what it is like for them. Here are some answers I have remembered. Some are so haunting they have stuck with me for years. I try to never forget their answers so I will always have compassion the next time I meet someone who is suffering and feeling so utterly alone.

What is depression like for you?
“It’s like a black hole you can’t crawl out of, it’s neverending, and it is blinding.”
“It is paralyzing, my body aches, my heart hurts, and my head spins. It just won’t stop.”
“Sometimes the drugs help, a lot of times they do, but then there is that day they don’t. Then it is darkness all over again. And then less hope.”
“People tell me to just be happy and pick myself up by my bootstraps. But it it feels like I can’t even get my boots on.”
“I have bipolar. The highs are fantastical. I feel so alive. Then the lows come. It is worse than being dead.”
“I feel like I can’t move. I can feel it coming on, and I can’t stop it. I pray, I tell it to go away, I beg. It just doesn’t go away.”
“I just want it to end. I have tried every med there is. I just don’t think there is any point.”
“I am just sick and tired of being sick and tired. My hope is almost gone. Without that what is there?”
“I try so hard to make it stop. I worry about my family. I do think sometime they’d be better off without me. I have no joy. I have nothing to give.”

What, I ask you, do you say to such pain?

What about therapy? Have you tried that?
“Yes, but therapy is mostly talking. I have nothing inside of me. I feel nothing. I am nothing. What is there to talk about?”
“Why would I talk to someone about how I feel? No one can change how I feel, and I wouldn’t want to be a burden on someone, even a stranger, for how desperate my soul is.”
“Therapy works for awhile. Just like the meds. Then it comes back. It always comes back.”

These truths are real, and there are no easy answers.

These are real-life statements from people who I have known. People of different socio-economic and racial backgrounds, not just the poor and uneducated. Their voices periodically linger in the back of my mind, and even more so this week. I have known two people who have taken their own lives. They were severely depressed, and struggled with addiction. But so did many other people I have worked with over the years. I do not know what sets them apart from all the others I have known with mental illness. I don’t think anyone will ever know. Why him? Why not her? It makes sense if she did it? But him, no way? The truth is we just don’t know the inner workings of someone’s mind, even in spite of their outside persona. A person’s inner soul is so immensely private, that likely a very select few ever see it. This I do know. Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, any of the “mental illnesses” are insidious and complicated diseases, and anyone who suffers from them need our compassion and understanding, even during death, for a person to take his or her own life, he must have been suffering greater psychic pain than any average person will ever, ever know. Be kind, in life, and in death.

It does continue to make me wonder what we can do.

One thing that comes to mind is that we need to reframe the discussion. Why are we calling depression, bipolar, addiction, or schizophrenia a mental illness? These are physical illnesses that are due to atypical brain chemistry. When you call something a mental illness, there is an implication that a person is at fault and there is some kind of character flaw. With that belief, it is easier to blame the person and villify him as a defective human. When we can blame a person, there is no collective responsibility for humanity or compassion. Is that what we have come to?

When a person has diabetes, they have a pancreas that is not functioning properly. When a person has asthma, they have lungs not functioning properly. If a person dies of an asthma attack, is he blamed and characterized as being at fault? Unlikely. When a person has depression, their brain is not functioning properly. The pancreas and the lungs and the brain are all organs, and organs we all need to survive. Diabetes, heart disease, lung disease all are treated with scans and tests of the organ responsible for the disease. “Mental” illnesses are the only illnesses whose organ, the brain, is not routinely scanned or evaluated to determine appropriate treatment. I once met with a psychiatrist for my own struggles with anxiety, and he said that psychiatry is more an art versus a science, and so we experimented with different medications to see what worked. Would that type of experimentation happen with heart disease?

I am not intimating that the medical profession is at fault for the evaluation and treatment of “mental” illness. In fact, no one is, but we all are. I am suggesting, however, that if we remove the term “mental” from these illnesses, and just call them physical illnesses, less stigma would be attached to the individuals who suffer so greatly from such pain. Less blame translates into more compassion and kindness…..and that leads to better treatment overall.

I am grateful I have never suffered from the black hole of depression. No one deserves to have such suffering. To all those who struggle, may you find peace and compassion.

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | March 4, 2014

What, exactly, is a gay parent?

If you live in Michigan, no doubt you have heard about the DeBoer vs. Snyder trial that is happening in federal court in Detroit, MI, the so-called “gay marriage trial.”  The trial is focusing on whether or not the Michigan ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and whether or not gay and lesbian parents are fit to be parents and can legally adopt and/or raise children.  Many witnesses for the plaintiffs testified last week about the effectiveness of gay parenting, and whether or not kids raised in same-sex headed households suffer consequences because of their parents.  These witnesses supported the fact that children are not harmed when raised by a same-gendered couple. 

Today, the State called its expert witness, Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at UT-Austin, who testified that there are differences for children raised in same-sex parent households versus male-female headed households, creating negative effects for these children.  So, I’ve been pondering the notion of gay parenting, and what that exactly means.  As a woman who is gay, and who is a parent, I decided to reflect on a day in the life of a “gay parent,” to determine if in fact I’m really a gay parent, or if I’m just a parent who is gay. 

5am – My alarm goes off, and I race out of bed to make sure I get the much-needed run in before the children wake-up.  I get on the treadmill, run for 35 minutes and race to the shower, while my wife is now awake and making lunch for the big one, and entertaining the little one who likes to wake up at the crack of dawn.  She’s making a very routine lunch, cheese sandwich, fruit, carrots, and a special treat.  Nothing seemingly gay about that lunch, so it seems thus far we are just regular parents scurrying about in the early morning hoping we remember to even pack the lunch let alone make it healthy.

7am – Breakfast time, children are dressed and ready to start the day.  Toast is the preferred breakfast item, and so I wonder, is there a gay way to make the toast?  I check out the toaster (not sure what it is about gays and toasters, but I digress), to see if there are any secret compartments that only a gay mom would know about…nope, nothing, just a toaster.  (I suspect this piece of toast tastes the same as my neighbor’s toast across the street, and she’s not gay, but perhaps we should do a test someday.)   The toast pops out, the butter is spread, and breakfast is served.  We do offer hormone-free, organic milk for breakfast, perhaps that is the “gay parenting” part?     

7:30am – brush teeth, hair, pack your backpacks time.  I hear the usual whines and moans about teeth-brushing, and I tell the same story about how if you don’t brush your teeth they will turn green and fall out, the littles roll their eyes and proceed to brush, quickly I might add, and their Mama and I proceed to tell them to brush longer…blah blah blah….(I feel like I’m talking to myself most mornings)…..Now, is that the gay part? Because I’m really reflecting here and trying to figure out where the gay parenting difference is?   Brush long enough so your teeth don’t fall out?  Nope, I am betting most parents are having this same conversation at some point before their children go to school.   The worst conversation is the brushing your hair – our oldest has taken to wearing hats all day – she says it is her style, but we really know it is because she just doesn’t want to brush her hair.  But we continue to support her developing sense of self and let her wear her hat all day because we are great gay parents who want nothing but a healthy self-esteem for our daughter.  Oh, wait, that’s not the gay way of parenting, that’s just good parenting.  So, I guess so far no gay parenting difference yet and it’s not even 8:00am.

8:00am – off to school and childcare.  My spouse is volunteering in our older daughter’s classroom all week, so she gets to do the school drop-off.  (I am secretly glad about this as I get to go to work earlier, and truth be told, that means I get to stop at my favorite coffee shop for a fresh cup of gay coffee).   I check-in with my spouse later in the morning and hear how wonderful the study group went for the class, how proud she is of our daughter, and we are then off again about our workday.  I am pausing mid-morning to determine if my worrying about my youngest daughter’s developing cold is a gay parent worry or a regular parent worry?  I’m not sure, as I’ve never really thought about it that deeply.  Mostly what I know is that I’m super anxious when it comes to the health and well-being of my children and even after all these years I worry when they get the sniffles.  Again, I determine that is just simple old anxious parenting versus gay parenting….which in reality, will likely cause more harm to them than having lesbian mothers. 

3:00pm – I pick up the kids from school and they inform me that it is now March and our local Dairy Queen is open….yes, it is 12 degrees outside and they still want ice cream.  So, what does any good gay parent do?  They take them to DQ!!!  I do insist that they sit in the car and shiver with their ice cream and not eat outside, for fear that some random bystander will notice how gay that is and call child protective services on me for being a neglectful “gay” parent.  I must say that seeing their cold little faces gleefully eat their Dairy Queen ice cream in 12 degree weather, when it is supposed to be about 40 degree weather, made my heart smile.  And, I relish in the fact that I am relegated to being the best mommy in the world right now for giving them ice cream in the middle of the freezing cold.  Again, I don’t think that is being gay parent, I think that is being a Michigan parent who has survived what has been the coldest winter in memory and who has had to deal with cabin-fever children for months. 

4:30pm – Homework time.  My gay parent self is wondering how I should help my oldest practice her multiplication tables….should I get my tools out and help her realize that when you multiply 3 nails by 3 nails you get 9 nails?  Nope, probably not a great visual, I think I’ll just stick with the online program her school recommends.  There of course are some moans and groans through this, as she would much rather play American Girl dolls with her little sister.  So, I ask, is anyone noticing if there is anything gay about my parenting yet?  If so, please let me know. 

5:30 – Mama arrives home to joyful greetings from our littles, as they show her how we are playing bowling with the paper towels and 5 lb exercise ball in the hallway.  Our littlest is ecstatic about getting a strike, but dismayed when her big sister tells her that she only gets one turn when she rolls a strike.  And the big sister, well, she’s a rule follower, even in paper towel bowling, so we must adhere to that.  It is hard as a gay parent, I mean parent, to honor the exuberance of one child and the practical nature of the other.  When any parent, gay or not, figures out how to parent two very different children equally well, let me know.   

6:00 – Dinner is ready and we all sit down together at the table to discuss the day.  We play our “Roses and Thorns” game together as a sneaky way to get them to tell us about their thoughts and feelings of the day, because how dare we just ask “how was your day?” That is most certainly to get met with a look of disdain from the big one and an over-exaggerated story from the little one.   We share many laughs together at dinner, plan the evening, and determine having dessert first at Dairy Queen is what we should be doing everyday.

7:00 – Storytime and bedtime routine begins.  The big one settles into her own reading and the little is enjoying some quality reading time with her Mama.   I am cleaning up the dishes, getting things ready for the next day, and feeling blessed yet exhausted that another wonderful day of gay parenting has passed.  And, it will begin again tomorrow at 5 am as we do the same thing day in and day out, and we do so with joy, frustration, anxiety, tenacity, boredom, and always, love.  

This trial has brought up many questions and notions about parenting.  While I think the trial is in the end going to be a positive event, I do worry about the effects of the testimony surrounding “who makes a better parent?”  If we look at research, we can say that children living in strong neighborhoods and being raised by educated, middle to upper-class, white married or partnered two-parent families fare better than any other child.  So is this trial setting the stage for tests on whether poor parents should have children? Should single parents raise children?  Should parents in high-crime high-poverty stricken areas raise children?  Should parents of color raise children?  Should divorce occur when there are children involved?   If we are absolute, not many very people should be raising children.  I know I do not want to go down that road.  I have worked with children and families as a social worker for 25 years – and parents who are gay, parents who are single, parents who are divorced, parents who are black, and quite simply, just parents, all want the same thing for their kids.  They want their children to be safe, happy, loved, and to find a place of belonging in the world.  Many of us as parents will try to help our children reach these goals through many different channels, some more effective than others.  Being a parent who is “different” than the mainstream does not make us better or worse parents, it may help us have varying perspectives on the world and how we approach parenting.  However, at the end of the day, my guess is that we all tuck our children in, kiss them on the cheek and gently say, “sweet dreams, baby, see you in the morning.” That, quite simply, is what parents do.  That, quite simply, is just love.

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | December 31, 2013

The Year of Resilience

Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness…or “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens”….”an ability to recover from or adjust easily to or change……” If I had to summarize 2013 in one word it would be just that – resilience.

Personally, so many of my loved ones have faced challenges this year – health crisis, loss of loved ones, employment crisis, life changes…..the list is long. I have watched friends and family deal with a crisis, and each and every one has shown such toughness and grace in the midst of the unthinkable. I stand in awe of them, and as a witness to their pain, I can only imagine what the depth of the sadness must be like. My hope for each person affected by pain and loss is that this new year will be different, one filled with renewal and peace, and that their strength will be rewarded with joy.

Professionally, it has been one of the toughest years of my career. When I was working for child protective services I expected to see and hear horrible things, as that is what I signed up for in many ways. Having the expectation of tragedy somehow armored me enough to do the job for ten years. After those ten, I realized I needed to be on the other side – working with families in the hopes of preventing child abuse. As 2013 closes, I am not sure which side I am on. I have had more serious child abuse cases referred to me this year through my early intervention job than I have had in 14 years. I have seen more poverty, drug and alcohol abuse (and subsequently drug-addicted babies), violence, homelessness, and fear in the eyes of my clients than I ever have. A family I work with has been affected by homicide, a few others by child abuse, others by drug abuse and mental illness. And the hardest was saying goodbye to one of my little babes who passed away for reasons that are still unclear to me. After all of these years of being a social worker, I felt scared out there.

In spite of all this darkness, resilience did prevail. A year ago a little baby who was severely abused with broken bones and internal injuries is now a thriving toddler living with loving relatives. Another baby who was born drug-addicted and small is now walking, talking, and in the arms of a loving adoptive mother. A mom and her baby leave an unsafe situation, falling into homelessness, but with their lives and integrity intact. The first baby should not have survived his injuries, but he did. The second baby should have developmental problems because of all the drugs, but he does not. The mom could have decided to stay with a violent person and have material things, but she kept on fighting and searching for a way to make herself and her baby safe instead. All of these families, like so many others, could have given up when it got too tough, but they didn’t. They learned to let go of the hands that hurt them, and hold onto the hands that helped. Once again, I am in awe of them and honored that I was able to walk with them on their journey. Thankfully, there are happy endings, which fuels me and keeps me resilient enough to carry on.

They say the human brain has an enormous capacity for resilience. This year has definitely proved that to me.

In honor of the year of resilience, the year that a great hero for human rights passed on, I will remember his words: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” -Nelson Mandela

May 2014 be a better year for us all.

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Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | November 27, 2013

Taking people for granted

In a couple of days it will be Thanksgiving and many of us will be gathered together with friends and family giving thanks for all that we have – family, friends, food, material goods, and our health. This year I have been thinking about what I am grateful for, and the list is long. However, I realized I needed to pay special attention to those relationships in my life that I may have taken for granted. Perhaps this first step of recognition will assist me in changing my approach to pay more attention all year long to those that I love all instead of just focusing on thankfulness during one season of the year. I’m sure many of us can think about the people in our lives we have unintentionally forgotten – the friend who is always there no matter what and who never asks for help, or the friend who is always happy and able to cheer you up……the teacher who went the extra mile for our child….the colleague who is always there to lend a helping hand…..the check-out person who looked us in the eye, smiled, and gave us the sale price that begins the next day; and, even our children for always knowing when to be funny and make us laugh. It is so easy to ignore the people in life who are loyal, steadfast, sturdy and just always there. They are always in our corner, and never complain about our faults. They are easy to take advantage of because they don’t “need” or “request” as much of us as others may do. I have to remind myself that they, too, have needs, and I should pay attention, slow down, and say thank you for all that they do for me, and for the world. Sometimes just being noticed and thanked can sustain a person for months. I, we, need to do more of this and practice gratitude towards the people in our lives who love and care for us. In our multi-tasking, consumption-oriented and fast-paced world we tend to lose sight of our relational connections. It is easy to “post,” “text,” and “tweet” to one another, and sometimes that is all we can do…at times they are truly wonderful ways to communicate. However, the old-fashioned phone call to say “Happy Birthday” and the hand-held, hand-written thank-you card received in the mail says so much about how the person calling or sending thinks about the person who receives it. Our culture, and subsequently we as a people, take these ways of connecting, and our relationships for granted way too much – and people are lonely and hurting because of it.

I am thankful for my house, my car, my “stuff.” I am thankful for my job and the fact that I can provide more than enough for my family. But I am most thankful for the people I have in my life who care for me, sustain me, love me, and help me be a better person. I know that when I am overwhelmed with life, work, parenting, and “stuff,” I want less connection, until I reach out to someone who understands and then I remember it is the being seen and heard by someone that gets me through. I think we all could use less “stuff” and more connection, and that I/we cannot take “our people” for granted any longer.

I thought of all the people I may not have offered a kindness to lately, or who I may have taken for granted. With that in mind, here is the start of my gratitude to others that I hope I can continue throughout the year: To my child’s teacher who has unwavering patience and compassion to all of the children she teaches and guides, even in the midst of budget cuts and constant pressure on our educational system to do more. To my child’s daycare provider who absolutely loves each and every child she cares for unconditionally and makes them feel special each and every day. To my beloved social work and early childhood colleagues who are dedicated and loyal public servants, who keep knocking on doors when no one is home or when they don’t want you there, who help our smallest and most vulnerable children develop and thrive, and who continue to battle through bureaucracy and social inequality at its very core. To my clients who teach me everyday what it means to be resilient and brave in the face of extreme powerlessness. To the people in the world who are grappling with unrelenting terror or sadness as they teach me what it is like to hang on to hope when it seems like there is none. To my beloved friends who have known me through many changes in my life and who continue to love and support me no matter what. To my friends who I do not see or talk to much because of distance or life circumstance, I am touched by our ability to reconnect even with so much time and space in between. To my spouse, who has taught me the power of laughter and love and whose embrace continues to get through to me even in my darkest moments. To my children, who teach me everyday to be patient, kind, loving and flexible, and who have shown me how much they unconditionally love me in spite of my worst parenting moments.

As I write this, I can see clearly that even through the trials and tribulations life brings, I have been blessed with knowing kind-hearted and compassionate people who have helped me get through. Life is hard, love is stronger. Thank you.

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | August 25, 2013

We all need a person

We all need a person……We all need a place.

Someone asked me recently, “I just want a person, doesn’t everybody, is that so bad to want that?”

Lately I have been thinking about that question, and what it is that makes some people survive and heal from difficulties in their lives, while others struggle. So much has been written about childhood resilience, and we know that internal and external resources can help a child be more or less resilient. But what is the underlying factor? What is the common denominator?

The last 23 years of clinical social work practice has convinced me that it is relationship. It is the felt sense of being seen and heard by another person that can carry someone through. In a perfect world, every child would have that type of parental relationship with a grown-up who is raising him. Every child would have a parent who is safe, kind, strong, loving and practices unconditional parenting (most of the time). The reality is that too many children do not get that kind of parent. So what helps them get through? It is having a relationship, even if it is brief, with a person who sees you, hears you, and gets you. These brief relationships can be with a teacher, a coach, a friend….and they are stepping stones for children in forming a lasting relationship with another person. When a child can have both a parental relationship and outside relationships that are sustaining and fulfilling, how lucky that child is.

I work with so many people who did not have a loving parent. But yet they survive, and they fight, and hopefully many will eventually thrive. The ones who thrive, they are able to recall those moments in time when they were seen and heard by another. Those moments helped them feel worthy, loved, and gave them a sense of belonging. I routinely ask my clients: “who was your person?” In each developmental stage of life, I try and find out who their person was, the person who saw them, heard them, believed them. Most of the time, they can identify at least one person in each stage. I try and build on that strength of this past experience that can show them they were worthy. It is hard to have not been seen or heard by the people that should have been doing that, and it might take some years to heal from those wounds, but when there is at least one person showing them that, healing is possible. Sadly there are times when I have worked with a person who only has had one or two moments like that, but remarkably, we can call that shared sense of being heard into the present day and I have seen the difference it has made. A moment when a teacher tells a student, “I know you are smart and brave, and I know you can do this.” Or when a grown-up says to a child, “I believe you, and I am going to help you be safe.” I try and provide these moments on a daily basis, hoping to string along enough of them to create a path to wholeness someday.

Along with having a person, we also need a place. It has become more apparent in my life and work how deeply important it is to have a sense of belonging. It is a basic need, just as much as food, water, and shelter. I never realized it so profoundly until the last few years.

This makes me think of all the kids who have experienced foster care. I work with young kids in the foster care system, I have been a foster care social worker, I have provided training to foster care workers, and I now work with adults who experienced being in foster care. I cannot say I know what it is like to be a kid in foster care, but I certainly have seen their eyes and felt their hearts. From how I see it, their biggest struggle is not having a sense of belonging in the world. To feel this, you need a person, and you need a place.

Things that you may not know about a child in non-relative foster care: when they go to foster care, they don’t bring a luxurious suitcase and organized boxes with their possessions. If they are lucky, they have a duffle bag, and most of the time a big garbage bag of some clothes. No toys, no pictures, no favorite foods. All too often they have the clothes on their back and that is about it. If a child has a sibling, they might get to move together, but often times not. They walk into a strange house with new smells, new sounds, new sights, and new grown-ups who are strangers to them. They lose their neighborhood, their friends, their extended family, their place in the world. I used to be the one to take the kids to these unfamiliar places – it is one of the most heartbreaking things I had to do in my career, truth be told. I remember one little girl I had to place into a foster home (her second) who stole my heart. I remember consciously taking the long way to her new foster placement. A part of me wanted to keep driving, just so she could stay a bit longer with someone she knew. Me. I didn’t even know her that long, but I knew what stuffed animal she liked, I knew her nickname, and I knew her favorite foods. No one else in her new world other than me knew that. This may sound trivial, but it is the intimate pieces of knowledge other people know about you that makes you feel connected. These kids do not get enough of that.

I am not saying foster care or foster parents are bad. Sometimes in order to be safe, kids need to go to foster care, and they are blessed with amazing foster parents. But from the child’s perspective, leaving the home they knew for a strange place in and of itself is traumatic. If a child is lucky enough to remain in one foster home, be returned safely home within a reasonable amount of time, or be adopted by that foster family, he will be a success story. Unfortunately that scenario does not happen enough. Too many of our kids move from foster home to foster home to foster home, never being able to find that person, or that place, they can call home. Too many of our kids are treated as if they are disposable, moving from foster home to foster home, then maybe to juvenile detention, to a mental health facility, to the streets and even prison. No one is disposable, but our systems treat kids as if they are. I had one adult who experienced foster care tell me that staying in his abusive home would have been easier, because at least he knew what to expect, and at least he felt like he belonged somewhere. In foster care, he moved to several homes, went to a dozen schools, and could never quite fit in anywhere. Things were always changing, and he always had to start over. The one thing he got very good at by age 17 was saying goodbye. He was constantly losing and reclaiming his possessions, his space, his life, and his heart. If a person says goodbye too many times in his youth, it becomes a way of life, and one never learns how to stay. He is working hard now to make a place for himself, and to find a person, and he is doing it. I just wish it wasn’t so hard for him.

I can think of other childhood experiences that create this sense of loneliness, of not feeling like you belong anywhere. I am sure many of you can think of them, too. There are too many to even capture eloquently with the written word. All I know is that chronic loneliness is a precursor to heartbreak on many levels.

This all makes me think about Antoinette Tuff, the school clerk in Georgia who sat with an armed man who was about to go on a shooting spree in a school. I listened to the 911 tape and was moved beyond words by her compassion, patience, and love. She became his person that day, she listened, she heard him, she got him, she empathized with him. She gave him a place where he could show his pain, without judgement and without fear. She asked him his name, she remembered his name, and she called him by name. She was his person that day. And she became the person for 800 people in that school building. She is a true hero.

We all have to realize that we can all make a difference, moment by moment, in the life of a child or adult who needs it the most, by just being compassionate, present, and empathetic. And, even if you are someone’s person for a minute, a day, a year, you have helped a heart grow stronger.

We all need a person…..and we all need a place. If you have a person or persons, let them know how grateful you are for them.

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | July 11, 2013

Hope

Yesterday was a complicated mix of emotions kind of day. I said goodbye to a family I had been visiting for 2 years, and the goodbye was a routine kind of occurrence for the mom. She did not seem particularly emotional about our time together ending. I felt sadness, but did she? Were goodbyes and leavings as routine as brushing your teeth for her? When I asked her what she thought about us ending she just said, “Well, everybody leaves, so it’s all good.” Meaning, “I’ll survive, I always have, with or without anyone around.” I felt sad leaving not so much because we were ending, but because she experienced it as just another day in the life of abandonment. My next visit was with a new family. She was ambivalently eager to have me start visiting because another home visitor was ending with her. “Well, everyone else is leaving so I guess you can start coming now.” This feeling of being abandoned and not trusting that people will always be there for you seems to be a theme for my work right now. I have many people struggling with abandonment and trust issues. So many of them have life experiences that have taught them that the world is not safe, that people will not see or hear them, and that they just have to get through and do it alone. It is both scary and heartbreaking knowing that so many people walk the earth with that belief. Carrying that belief around leads to a host of problems, but I wonder, who can blame them, when their experiences tell them nothing else? They always survive, but do they ever thrive?

I thought about this all day yesterday driving along the eastern side of the county. Every person I encountered, whether it was a passerby, a client, or a store clerk at the In & Out Mart, I wondered if they felt alone and abandoned. Honestly, I did not want to know. There was too much sadness already and it was only noon. So I just made sure to make eye contact with the store clerk, tell him hi, and ask him how his day was. I made sure to say hi to a young man in the parking lot of the housing project I was in, so that he felt like someone saw him today. I thought deeply about how to help a young woman who believes everyone leaves, because everyone in her life has, believe in something different. I couldn’t come up with any real answers, other than to just be present for someone in the moment.

Later that night a new life entered the world and into my family. After looking at her picture a few times last night and then again this morning, I was able to see something. Hope. Her eyes are bright, alert, and she is clearly ready to be in this world to accept and embrace all that life will bring. It has been awhile since I’ve seen such welcoming and trusting “new” eyes, and I can’t wait to see those eyes in person. This little person will grow up being seen, heard, and understood. She will carry with her a belief that the world is safe and welcoming. She will carry that belief into adulthood and will create experiences for those around her that the world is a good place. That is hope. It is hope that this new life will add more positive experiences into the universe, so that those who need hope can somehow feel it in the air. It is hope that with the goodness she will receive, she will then touch the lives of others and pass it on. It is hope that even in the midst of sadness, there is always a new day, a new life, a fresh new perspective. Seeing these brand new eyes, and all the wonder and glory and excitement she brings, gives me hope that people can learn to love and trust again.

I carried that hope with me today in my visits, and I was a better social worker because of it. And it’s only noon.

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | May 14, 2013

A Tribute to Undefined Mothers

Here we are a couple of days after Mother’s Day, and I find myself thinking about all the women in the world who may have faced the day with bittersweet tenderness. There is so much attention (well-deserved, I might add) to the mothers who have given birth to and are raising their children. These women are very well-defined in our culture, and of course they should be honored and revered. But there are other groups of women who very often go unnoticed and are undefined in their parenting role. They do not know how to explain the relationship they have with the child or children they love. Not that they should have to explain, but often in our society we need an explanation for that which is unfamiliar. Having something fit neatly into a framework in which we can understand somehow makes us all feel better. But there are some things in life that do not fit into a nice package. And sometimes those things are the most beautiful.

As someone who has been and continues to be in an undefined mothering role, I wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the mothers of the world, those that are known and unknown, those that have names and no names. Perhaps it is best explained through stories of those I have known.

I have worked with dozens and dozens of foster parents over the years, and I am continually in awe of their devotion to children they often have to say goodbye to. Being able to fall in love with and parent a child who you know will not be with you forever, or for even very long, is a delicate and sometimes painful experience. There are those moments that as a “temporary” parent you unconsciously hold your emotions and love from the child, because deep down you know that child will have to go. Loving someone so completely all the while knowing he or she will leave requires a person to access the deepest parts of one’s soul. But I can tell you that when a parent, temporary or not, is able to love in that way, a child is forever changed for the better, even if they do have to say goodbye.

I call to mind a foster mom who has devoted herself to a young toddler boy. He came to her neglected and underfed, with aggressive behaviors most likely rooted in unrelenting fear. In one year with her, he has developed into a loving, kind, and joyful preschooler. This woman has taken him to his birth parent visits weekly, has consoled him when he didn’t want to leave her side to visit this strange person who birthed him, and has had to endure the pain of the child welfare system’s decision to return him to his birth home. Even in the midst of this pain, she has advocated for his rights, stood up for him at his preschool when he was labeled the “bad kid,” and has created a safe and loving family for him. She has cried with me and shared her fears about his possible eventual return to his birth family. When he has called her “mama,” she has corrected him and asked him to call her another motherly term of endearment….”because I don’t want to take any child away from his mother, and I don’t want to confuse him.” But yet she is his mother, not the one who gave birth to him, but the one who has cared for him, loved him unconditionally, fought for him, and who will probably have to let him go. She has given all of herself to him, and it was a self that he so desperately needed so that he could heal. She is not called mom, but she is the essence of a true mother.

I also am thinking about a grandmother who adopted her young grandchildren when she herself should have been retiring into a calm and peaceful existence. Her own daughter suffered a serious mental illness, and she could not raise her children safely. This grandmother had to make a choice between keeping her grandchildren safe, or keeping her own daughter out of the criminal justice and mental health system. She chose her grandchildren. She devoted the rest of her life to loving her granddaughters, helping them understand their mother did not abandon them, but was just too ill to care for them. She organized her church community, her friends and neighbors and created a security blanket for these girls to grow and thrive, and even continued to work full-time. And, she never complained. She just did what she knew she had to do. The kids started to call her mom, but that was not going to happen, because they had a mom. She lovingly and firmly explained she was “Nana,” and she would never ever let them get hurt again, because “Nana’s” are always a protector. She is not called mom, but she is the essence of a true mother.

I am thinking about the aunties who become mothers, not by choice, but by circumstance. They were in the role of being the auntie who could give their nieces and nephews candy for dinner, keep them out late at the movies, and who would shower them with silly gifts and unconditional love. For some aunties, that all changed. They continue to shower the kids with unconditional love, but they have to say no to the candy for dinner, they have to tell them to stop playing and get ready for bath and bedtime, help them with their homework, and be the one who says no when all they really wanted to do was keep saying yes. I know some of these aunties. They are relentless in their love for their nieces and nephews, they are unyielding in their commitment to their kids, and they have sacrificed their dreams for the safety and health of their family members. They are not called mom, but they are the essence of a true mother.

I am also recalling all of the same-sex couples with whom I have worked. Many states do not have co-parent adoption rights for the non-biological or non-legal parent, and often times these parents only assurance is trusting the other parent to be honorable, and hoping that the community at-large will just “get it.” I myself have experienced the question when taking our children to a medical provider or someone who may not know us: “So who is the mom?” Well, we both are. “No, but who is the real mom?” Well, we both are. “And so what does she call you?” “Well, which one of you birthed?” Just because one of us is called something other than “Mom” does not mean we are not moms. But when society is faced with the unfamiliar and undefined, the inappropriate questions and obnoxious curiosity permeates the interactions. The most important people in the world, our kids, “get it.” But it’s hard to explain to them time and time again when other’s don’t. It’s the “others” that I worry will erode our kids’ sense of normalcy. But as a mother, you carry on, and you fight, and you explain, and you scream in your pillow late at night when no one is listening.

And then there are those same-sex couples who divorce, and because of our laws, or lack thereof, the once honorable parent becomes dishonorable. Because one is legal and the other is not, it has unfortunately happened that parent-child bonds are altered or even broken. Children lose parents, parents lose children, and society loses its soul bit by bit and piece by piece. The non-legal mother, the non-biological mother, the Mama, the Mami, the “whatever you want to call her” has sufferred and endured a heartbreak that never really goes away. And so has the child. Even though these moms do not or cannot see their children, they love them no less. They are not called mom, but they are the essence of a true mother.

I have spent most of my career helping, healing, listening, educating, and honoring mothers. For all that every mother does, both defined and undefined, you are valuable, you are honorable, and you are a blessing to this world.

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | February 26, 2013

An Unexpectedly Expected Journey

I see grief almost daily. I see it in the faces of parents who are watching their special-needs child not meet milestones like other kids, or who will never hear their autistic child say “I love you.” I see it in the faces of the babies and toddlers who were removed from their parent, as they try and navigate new faces and understand unspoken loss. I see it as I drive by a person’s belongings on the side of the road after being evicted. I see it when a parent has to suffer the unspeakable and unthinkable loss of a child.

Some grief is endless and there are constant daily reminders, as a parent of a special-needs child can attest to, as they face countless losses for their child who is growing up in a less than tolerable world. There never seems to be closure for them. I am often in awe of parents who can find the joy in what is sometimes a heart-wrenching journey of unknowns. But for most, they do find the happiness and are able to live their life and share their love. I wonder how they do it.

Then there is the grief that is supposed to happen, the grief that is natural when someone’s “time” has come and we have to say goodbye. Is it easier to see the “alive” loss everyday, or to long for the person who is gone whom we will never see again? Certainly there is no answer to that question. I know it is true that no loss is expected, at any time, at any moment. Even when it is supposed to happen, it is never easy, and never understandable. The only thing I know for sure is that loss has no answers. It just is.

I am not sure about the saying that “time heals all wounds,” especially as it relates to grief and loss. I think time mostly changes how we feel, and the intensity of our loss lessens. Time helps the sadness go to a place deep down inside so that it does not show itself every day. But we all know that sadness can be unleashed at any given moment. Time hopefully lessens the amount of tears that were shed the day before, then the months before, then the year before. But our healing is a deeply personal and infinite journey, and no one can tell us how to do it right.

Some say it is easier to lose someone you love when it is their expected time to go. While that may be true to a degree, loss is never expected or easy. Even when the natural processes of life take hold, in that moment of saying goodbye, the magnitude of our grief is unexpected, and there are no answers.

When a parent is faced with the daunting task of explaining death or loss to a child, the fear and trepidation that overcomes you is profound. What if I screw it up? What if I traumatize them more? What if it’s all wrong? But somewhere inside you, the spirit of the one you lost rises up and gives you the courage to speak the truth to your child. I always knew this day would come for my own family, but I never knew how unprepared or unexpected it would feel. Telling the people you love the most in the world that someone is gone forever is perhaps the hardest thing I have had to do as a parent. But I know that telling them the truth, telling them it is final, letting them see tears and sadness was needed. The biggest question we’ve heard so far is “how long will I be sad?” Again, no answers to give, just love.

It is certainly natural for kids to ask why and how…..why can’t my brother talk? Why is my sister different? How come she has to wear that brace? Why do people die? I know sometimes I rush to figuring out the answers in order to calm fears, and sometimes I think those fears are my own. In the midst of searching for answers I will sometimes talk too much or too long. I realized recently that not knowing the answers, that being ok with saying “I don’t know, honey,” is good enough. Learning to live in the unknown is hard, and it is not something that is routinely taught to kids as they grow. I think helping kids tolerate ambiguity and the unknown while surrounded by the unyielding love, security, and kindness of family will make it alright for them, and the glorious memories we are so fortunate to have will carry us through.

I thought that seeing grief everyday would make personal grief easier. It is not easier. Having grief inside me, and particularly seeing the heartache and longing in those that I love has helped me see that opening my heart to others, especially to those that I love most, is exactly what I need to be doing more of, today and everyday. Grief and loss is ever-present, at the most unexpected and expected of times, but being surrounded by love without judgement eases it, even if ever so slightly.

Rose On Wood BW

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | February 15, 2013

ode to a baby

I love babies.  I love working with babies and their parents, I love holding them and seeing all the potential in their little eyes.  Yesterday I was holding a baby who came to the world much too early, and exposed to way too much before he was even born. My heart was breaking for all that he has endured in such a short time. I hope he could hear me when I held him close and told him he was going to be ok.  I hope the moments of goodness he has will turn into a lifetime of joy.  I long for his caretaker to understand him, and to see him.  These are my wishes for him and all babies, but especially for my babies who come to this earth with so many strikes against them.  I so hope they hear these words and have these experiences with someone who loves them .  Every baby, every child, deserves this.  

ode to a baby

You bring me so much joy, and my life is better with you in it

I want to give you the world, but not too much too soon

I never knew I could feel so much love, so thank you for opening my heart

You have given me a new life, a new dream, a new perspective

And I hope I do not disappoint you

So for now this is what I promise you

I am going to hold you close and look into your eyes

And with every moment I will see all the hope that you bring

When you cry I will come to you, hoping I can calm your fears

When you laugh I will laugh with you

When you smile I will smile with you

When you need me I will be there

When you need to let go a little, I will understand and embrace your curiosity

When you need to come back again, my arms will be open

When we are out of sync, I will strive to see your beauty

Sometimes I will make mistakes, and when I do I will tell you I am sorry

With all that we experience together, some of it hard, some of it easy, always know that you are wanted 

And I love you.  

Beverly Davidson. 2/15/13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | February 7, 2013

Inner voice

I’m struck by the number of parenting books and parenting “experts” there are on the market. It is utterly confusing to know what is reputable with the myriad of choices. I’m often asked to give a recommendation on a parenting subject, and my standard line is: “well, you can probably find an answer to any question to support any strategy you want to use, whether it’ll work or not, but what’s your gut tell you? You can find an expert on anything, but the only expert on your child is you.” Much of the work that I do is helping parents get in touch with their instincts, and learning how to trust them. We spend alot of time worrying about “messing up” our kids, doing or saying the wrong thing, when in reality, it would have to take a mountain of mess-ups on a daily basis, over the course of years, to really do damage (unless you are talking about child abuse, which is an entirely different topic. Mostly, I’m talking about the garden-variety neurotic parenting that many of us engage in with our kids). However, I do think that a parent’s confidence level and sense of competence in parenting has a major effect on a child. Kids take cues from their parents all the time. If you parent from a place of ambivalence and anxiety, never trusting yourself, it leaves kids less confident and unsure. Kids can sense and react to extremes – extreme anger, extreme ambivalence, and even extreme anxiety and worry. If a parent feels incompetent and does not trust himself, and excessively worries, the child will know this and lose faith in his own abilities. Because, if “my parent worries so much about me, there must be something wrong with me.” Sometimes I think parents need to be given permission to make a mistake. If you parent in good faith, and with love, and approach the decision with confidence and it turns out to be the wrong one, your child will be ok. You can always repair a mistake, and make a different decision the next time. The mere act of telling your child you were wrong and you are sorry will be a monumental life lesson for him, and will show him the integrity you have in raising him. It is much harder to undo a childhood laced with anxiety and ambivalence than it is to say you are sorry a few times here and there.

Where did this inability to not trust our instincts begin, I often wonder. I see it all the time in my work, especially as it affects parenting, relationships, and career choices, among others. I would venture to say this “lost voice theme” starts in childhood. When a child’s reality is not validated by a grown-up, she learns not to trust her inner voice. There is a disconnect between the “little voice” that’s inside and the “big voice” that’s talking down at her. When this happens continually over time, a child loses the ability to trust not only others, but herself. By adulthood, this little girl is now grown, and has no idea what to believe or who to trust. For example, little Johnny sees his mom and dad fighting and arguing and asks, “why are you fighting?” Dad says, “we are not fighting, (in a harsh voice), go to your room, we are just having a disagreement.” Little Johnny proceeds to go to his room where he hears continual yelling….and now he’s confused…..and there’s no one to help him figure out his feelings let alone the truth. 6-year old Betty sees her mommy crying, staring over a glass of liquor. She asks, “what’s wrong, mommy?” To which mom replies, “Nothing is wrong, just leave me alone and go play.” Betty is left alone in silence, feeling lost and not really understanding why, and doubting the truth she just witnessed. She knows her mom is sad, and this 6-year old will likely think she is the cause. Or it can be something as simple as 3-year old Jane falls down and hurts her knee, sees blood, and screams in fear, and Mom says, “oh, you’re ok, it doesn’t hurt that bad.” Well, she probably is ok, but for a 3-year old in that moment, she’s terrified, in pain, and needs some validation and comfort. This validation only takes a few seconds, but those seconds count. Just a few brief moments of validating the reality, naming the feeling, and moving on is all a kid needs to feel understood and have her reality maintained.

I spend much of my time with people validating their feelings and experiences and helping them get in touch with their instincts. Our bodies are wonderful at telling us what we need, if only we would listen. So many of the people I see never had a trusted grown-up validate their reality and honor their feelings, and so they grew up in a constant state of denial or confusion, or a mixture of both. To add to that, we are now living in a world where we are deluged with a plethora of information about everything. Our bodies are taking in massive amounts of stimuli constantly, and we are often in a state of overdrive. So, combine this over-stimulation with a person who came into adulthood already doubting herself, and what you have left is a person who is in a constant state of questioning. It’s no wonder people are always doubting themselves, their decisions, their choices. They are second-guessing the big and small decisions, and never quite feeling confident in anything.

I think that may be why as parents we are always so unsure of ourselves in how we raise our kids. We come into parenting with all the unanswered questions of our childhood, and our kids challenge us to answer their questions while we are still trying to figure out our own. Kids provide us with an amazing opportunity for growth. The hard part is figuring out who needs to do the most learning, us or them. Reflecting on and understanding who you are and what you believe in, and then trusting your inner voice, will give a person great confidence in parenting as well as all other aspects of one’s life. When you are able to be quiet enough to listen to what your body and soul is telling you, often the answer is already known.

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